Zino's Petrel off Madeira - June 2018

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Saturday, 14 November 2015

South Africa - A memorable day - 15th January 2015

This day really stood out to me as one of my best birding days abroad. Target species came after one another in completely sparse countryside in extreme heat and completely off the beaten track for small periods.

Before I left for South Africa, my main focus was the Larks, and my main targets were Red, Barlow's and the one what this post is all about, Sclater's Lark, known for its elusiveness being very mobile and scarce in South Africa, known only from the Northern Cape, but is also found in southern Namibia. 

The day started off to the east of Brandvlei where I had stayed the night. The population of Brandvlei is around three hundred people and is split by a horizontal track. On the southern half of the track the locals are very poor who live mostly in huts made out of very poor materials, whereas on the northern side of the track, people (mainly whites) live in very nice houses with semi-decent cars on their driveways. All very strange, but needless to say I stayed in the northern section.

the southern section of Brandvlei

I set off from my accommodation just after first light. Driving out into bushmanland was simply stunning. Complete silence was yielded by a spectacular sunrise. Namaqua Warblers and Black-chested Prinias were calling from every small bush, whilst small flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse flew overhead in all directions. Having looked up pictures of the habitat where best to look for my main target bird (Sclater’s Lark), I spent a couple of hours walking this habitat but to no avail. A Karoo Korhaan flew past but by the far the highlight was a gorgeous Bat-eared Fox by the roadside, one of my most wanted mammals of the trip. A couple of stops at some dams (or small wells in my eyes) still failed to produce any Larks. However, a flock of small birds quickly passing through alerted my attention, and were the tiny Scaly-feathered Finch, which turned out to be my only sighting of the trip of this very mobile and nomadic species.

the favoured habitat of the Sclater's Lark
a surprise encounter - a Bat-eared Fox

I continued to head further east and further away from civilisation along a dirt track roughly thirty miles east of Brandvlei. The scenery was stunning and birds encountered along here were simply awesome. Having struggled the day before, today I encountered small flocks of Black-eared Sparrowlarks and managed to see a bird on the deck. Rufous-eared Warblers were common as were Spike-heeled Larks and eventually Greater Kestrels were seen. More walking on ideal habitat for the Larks yet again failed to produce any, and with temperatures soaring my optimism was starting to run low.
Greater Kestrel 30 miles east of Brandvlei

Back in Brandvlei, I filled up with fuel and water and continued north on the R27 towards Kakamas, my place to stay for the evening. The ‘Where to watch birds in Southern Africa’ now came in useful as it pointed to a trio of dams no more than two miles apart roughly 30km south of Kenhardt. I arrived here around midday with temperatures now above 40 degrees Celsius. At the time I felt there was no chance but no doubt during the heat of the day birds will have to drink, and these dams were the only chance to get some.

At the first dam, there was not much to show other than tens of Lark Like Buntings and the odd Sabota Lark. The only thing to keep me interested was the huge Sociable Weaver nest on one of the wooden poles, and it seemed to roughly be an equivalent size to my car. Southern Pale-chanting Goshawks were also plentiful. Having seen no Larks resembling anything rare, I continued onto the other two dams further up the road, but brief stops only produced a Layard’s Tit-babbler and more Sabota Larks. I returned back to the original dam with more determination but after another hour of suffering in the extreme heat, there was still no sign of any Sclater’s Larks. Admitting defeat, I headed north but promised to stop once more at the two dams before heading north towards Kakamas.

one of the dams along the R27

The first dam again only produced the same species, but arriving at the second dam (Booysem Dam) and my last chance of seeing my target Larks, there seemed to be lots of activity. Walking over as briskly as I could crunching the dusty earth, a small flock of Larks came in and landed right in front of me. I knew they were different but they appeared small, pale and held a small crest. These were not Sclater’s, but instead were the very nomadic and difficult to see Stark’s Lark. I was completely overwhelmed and jumped with joy, however I was still 20m away from the dam, and a look through the bins revealed two birds sat in the shade by the water. Due to the shade it was difficult to see any detail so I took some photos just in case they flew. As I approached closer, I could now see the dark ‘teardrop’ and short tail. I could not believe it, these were Sclater’s Larks!!! I grabbed more pictures before they took flight and headed out of view into the distance. All that time in the heat had been worth it. I was stunned and felt incredibly lucky, so much so my jumping around commenced yet again (nearly treading on a dosile Sabota Lark in the process), and back in the car it all got a bit too much. The realisation of my achievement, in the middle of the Northern Cape thousands of miles from home certainly made me feel a bit emotional. An unforgettable moment.

Sclater's Lark at Booysen Dam - note the dark teardrop on the rear bird

The luck carried on all the way to Kakamas with birds such as African Red-eyed Bulbul, Orange River White Eyes and Black-chested Snake Eagle being seen, as well as a host of other top quality birds. The Northern Cape in all its glory. The only downside was not getting the Red Lark earlier in the day, but this was soon resolved in the Koa Dunes a couple of days later.

This day ended perfectly with an amazing steak dinner at the Vergelegen Country Guesthouse, me seemingly being very out of place in my dirty shirt and shorts.

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